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As elsewhere (2 Cor 13:11; 1 Thess 5:16), Paul begins with rejoice, here repeating 3:1 exactly, rejoice in the Lord—with the adverbial addition always (from 1 Thess 5:16). Thus it serves both to frame the preceding section on "their affairs," giving a context for the warnings and appeals in that section, and to introduce the final series of encouragements and exhortations. The two adverbs always and again tell us much, especially that this is not just "typical" and therefore to be passed over as a nice Christian platitude, but crucial to the whole of this letter.
Joy, unmitigated, untrammeled joy, is—or at least should be—the distinctive mark of the believer in Christ Jesus. The wearing of black and the long face, which so often came to typify some later expressions of Christian piety, are totally foreign to Paul's version; Paul the theologian of grace is equally the theologian of joy. Christian joy does not come and go with one's circumstances; rather it is predicated altogether on one's relationship with the Lord and is thus an abiding, deeply spiritual quality of life. It finds expression in "rejoicing," which is an imperative, not an option. With its concentration in the Lord, rejoicing is always to mark individual and corporate life in Philippi. They who "serve by the Spirit of God" (3:3) do so in part by rejoicing in the Lord, whatever else may be their lot. In this letter "whatever else" includes opposition and suffering at the hands of the local citizens of the Empire, where Caesar was honored as "lord." In the face of such, the Philippians are to rejoice in the Lord always." (See further comment on 1:18; 2:2, 17-18; 3:1.)
The second imperative, let your gentleness be evident to all, follows from the first. The Lord to whom they belong has graciously set them free for joy—always. At the same time others should know them for their "gentle forbearance" (NIV gentleness) toward one another and toward all, including those who are currently making life miserable for them. Gentleness is used by Hellenistic writers and in the LXX primarily to refer to God (or the gods) or to the "noble," who are characterized by their "gentle forbearance" toward others. That is most likely its sense here, only now as the disposition of all of God's people.
This is the Pauline version of 1 Peter 2:23, spoken of Christ but urged on Christian slaves: "when they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly." It is this gentle forbearance and meekness of Christ, to which Paul appealed in 2 Corinthians 10:1, which he here calls the believers to exhibit in Philippi.
The sudden appearance of an indicative (the Lord is near) is as surprising as its intent is obscure. Does Paul intend "Rejoice in the Lord always; and let your gentleness be evident to all, for the [coming of] the Lord is near"? Or "Because the Lord is [always] near, do not be anxious about anything"? Or does he intend a bit of both, perhaps something as close to intentional double-entendre as one finds in the apostle?
On the one hand, this looks very much like another instance of intertextuality, purposely echoing Psalm 145:18, "The LORD is near to all who call on him." In this case it introduces verses 6-7 as an expression of realized eschatology: "Because the Lord is ever present, do not be anxious but pray." On the other hand (or perhaps at the same time), it also echoes the apocalyptic language of Zephaniah 1:7 and 14 ("the day of the LORD is near"), picked up by Paul in Romans 13:12, and found in James 5:8, regarding the coming of the Lord.
On the whole it seems likely that this is primarily intended as the last in the series of eschatological words to this suffering congregation, again reminding them of their sure future despite present difficulties. It thus functions as encouragement and affirmation. Since the Philippians' present suffering is at the hands of those who proclaim Caesar as Lord, they are reminded that the true Lord is near. Their eschatological vindication is close at hand. At the same time, by using the language of the Psalter, Paul is encouraging them to pray in the midst of their present distress, because the Lord is near in a very real way to those who call on him now.
Borrowing from the Jesus tradition, that the children of the kingdom are to live without care—but not "uncaring" or "careless"—Paul turns to one consequence of the Lord's being near. They are to live without anxiety, instead entrusting their lives to God with prayer and thanksgiving. Apprehension and fear mark the life of the unbelieving, the untrusting, for whom the present is all there is, and for whom the present is so uncertain—or for many filled with distress and suffering, like the Philippians. On the contrary, Paul urges, in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. In everything stands in contrast to not . . . about anything and means "in all the details and circumstances of life." The three words for prayer are not significantly distinguishable; requests (aitemata) are "made known" before God by prayer (proseuche) and petition (deesis). In so doing one acknowledges utter dependence on God while at the same time expressing complete trust in him.
Petition accompanied by thanksgiving puts both prayer and our lives into proper theological perspective. Thanksgiving is a recognition that everything comes as gift, the verbalization before God of his goodness and generosity. Gratitude thus acknowledged begets generosity. Indeed, lack of gratitude is the first step to idolatry (Rom 1:21). Paul's own life was accentuated by thanksgiving; and he could not imagine Christian life that was not a constant outpouring of gratitude to God. Thus thanksgiving does not mean to say "thank you" in advance for gifts to be received; rather, it is the absolutely basic posture of the believer and the proper context for petitioning God. It is also the key to the affirmation that follows.
Paul deliberately conjoins the peace of God with the exhortation to pray in trusting submission with thanksgiving. This is God's alternative to anxiety, in the form of affirmation and promise. As we submit our situation to God in prayer, with thanksgiving, . . . the peace of God in turn will guard our hearts and minds—because we are in Christ Jesus. That Paul expresses peace in such terms is probably an indication that one can make too much of the differences within this believing community, implied in 2:1-4 and made explicit in 4:2. He is indeed concerned that all of them "have the same mindset" as they "do" the gospel in Philippi; but in contrast to other letters, he does not express peace as an imperative (cf. Col 3:15) but as an indicative, closely related to their trusting God in prayer.
Like joy, peace is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22). It is especially associated with God and his relationship to his people. Here it is the peace of God because God is the God of peace (Phil 4:9), the God who dwells in total shalom (wholeness, well-being) and who gives such shalom to his people. Such peace transcends all understanding. This could mean "beyond all human comprehension," which in one sense is certainly true. More likely Paul intends that God's peace totally transcends the merely human, unbelieving mind, which is full of anxiety because it cannot think higher than itself. Our prayer to the God who is totally trustworthy is accompanied by his peace, not because he answers according to our wishes but because his peace totally transcends our merely human way of perceiving the world. Fortunately, God's people do not need to have it all figured out in order to trust him!
Such peace will therefore guard our hearts and thoughts (NIV minds). In the Hebrew view the heart is the center of one's being, out of which flows all of life (e.g., Mk 7:21). God's peace will do what instruction in "wisdom" urged the young to do: "Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life" (Prov 4:23). In the present context God's peace will be his "garrison" (a striking military metaphor) around our hearts when anxiety threatens. It will also guard our "thoughts"—those very thoughts that lead to fear and distress and that keep one from trusting prayer. As so often in this letter, such protection is in (or "by") Christ Jesus. It is the Philippians' relationship to God through Christ, in whom they trust and in whom they rejoice, that is the key to all of these imperatives and this affirming indicative.
Even though the experience of God's peace happens first of all at the individual level, it is doubtful whether in this context it refers only to "the well-arranged heart." For Paul peace is primarily a community matter. As noted below (Phil 4:9), the ascription God of peace occurs in contexts where community unrest is lurking. Indeed, apart from the standard salutation the mention of peace in Paul's letters occurs most often in community or relational settings (e.g., Rom 14:19; Eph 2:14-17; 4:3; Col 3:15). Thus the Philippians need not have anxiety in the face of opposition, because they together will experience the protection of God's peace in the midst of that conflict; and they who have been urged over and again to "have the same mindset" are here assured that the peace of God which surpasses merely human understanding will also protect their thoughts as they live out the gospel together in Philippi.
Joy, prayer, thanksgiving, peace—these identify Pauline spirituality. Such lives are further marked by gentle forbearance and no anxiety. The key lies with the indicative, the Lord is near—now and to come. In a post-Christian, postmodern world, which has generally lost its bearings because it has generally abandoned its God, such spirituality is very often the key to effective evangelism. In a world where fear is a much greater reality than joy, our privilege is to live out the gospel of true shalom, wholeness in every sense of that word, and to point others to its source. We can do that because the Lord is near in this first sense, by the Spirit who turns our present circumstances into joy and peace and who prompts our prayer and thanksgiving. And we should be at that task with greater concern than many of us are, because the Lord is near in the eschatological sense as well.